Apollonia U. Poilâne ’07 brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “term-time employment.”
The economics and psychology concentrator is the CEO of Pain Poilâne, a premier Parisian bakery with over 150 employees that, according to Poilâne, does around $18.2 million of business a year. Poilâne took over in October of 2002 after her parents were killed in a helicopter accident. At the time, she was taking a year off; when she learned of their deaths, she realized she would have until the following fall to figure out how to run a multi-million dollar business from across the Atlantic.
The company is famous for its bread’s taste and consistency, its 70-year history, and its group of celebrity devotees that reportedly includes Gerard Depardieu, Steven Spielberg, and Robert de Niro. In addition to turning in problem sets and hanging out with friends, Poilâne monitors her company’s production via phone and e-mail from her dorm room in Mather. She recently enlisted her younger sister Athena, currently a design student in New York, to help out with the complete re-design of the company’s signature bread bags.
Poilâne describes her devotion to her bread as “extremely passionate,” and takes pride in her active role in the company’s operations. She returns to Paris every four to six weeks for meetings, and spends her summers in France.
Poilâne, who also supervises a functional sculpture and jewelry gallery started by her mother, has kept a low profile at Harvard. Since she rarely speaks about the firm unprovoked, few people even know to be impressed. Blockmate Juliet R. Girard ’07 remembers learning of the full weight of Poilâne’s responsibilities. “When I mentioned her last name offhand to this French guy in my lab, he was just like: ‘Wait—that Poilâne?’” But her close friends understand this reticence. “You don’t want people treating you differently just because you deliver bread to Tom Cruise,” says blockmate L. Tenjiwe Moyana ’07.
And she doesn’t—Poilâne tries to live as close to a normal life as she can manage. “There’s no reason for me to put a label on my forehead and say ‘Hey, I run a company,’” she says. “But at the same time, I’m not going to lie—I kind of love my job.”
It is Poilâne’s ability to embrace and elude her corporate life which makes her truly exceptional. “The great thing about Apollonia is that she runs Poilâne like an adult, but she’s able to still step back and be a kid,” says Monyana. “She’s able to strike this balance between super serious and super silly, which I think might be the most impressive part.”